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Conversing with the enemy: A Sixers-Lakers preview with Alex Regla

Getting a little insight about Thursday’s opponent.

Los Angeles Lakers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Ahead of most games, Liberty Ballers conducts a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Alex Regla, who covers the Los Angeles Lakers for SB Nation’s Silver Screen and Roll.

How does Anthony Davis alter and improve the identity of this team, and specifically LeBron’s role on both ends?

Although they’ve already played 48 games, the Lakers are still trying to figure out what their identity actually is, mainly due to how much time Anthony Davis has missed this year. The team started the season literally huge, playing two traditional bigs and a third off the bench as a proxy of their championship winning formula. However, it was quickly apparent that the once-reliable recipe was flawed, given the roster’s spacing limitations and the sheer fact the non-Davis bigs have lost multiple steps to their respective games.

Davis’ return is a fresh start for the team, and in many ways, only builds upon the team’s small-ball approach they’ve turned to in his absence. His presence shores up the minutes in which the likes of Carmelo Anthony has had to soak up center possessions, and also unleashes the awesome LeBron James as the sole big groups upon opposing bench units. The latter may potentially help alleviate James’ workload and also allow Davis to focus on anchoring what has been a wobbly defense.

What encouraged you from the Brooklyn game that could apply to Thursday? What concerned you that could apply?

The Brooklyn game felt very much like a proof of concept for this current iteration of the team. For one, Davis immediately slotted back in as the team’s center rather than sharing the front court with another big, and more importantly, looked in surprisingly good shape after his long absence.

One of the other big positives of the win was the refined rotation. Outside of playing none of the aforementioned centers other than Davis, James and Anthony, Frank Vogel also trimmed more of the struggling players out of the rotation, most notably Trevor Ariza, who has yet to fill the role many fans hoped he would. We also got to see more of Austin Reaves and Stanley Johnson because of this, both of whom have been major bright spots and have wildly outperformed expectations.

In terms of what could apply to the matchup on Thursday, one key benefit to the Lakers downsizing has been their uptick in switching on defense and how this has jump-started their fastbreak game. It will be interesting to see how much switching the Lakers will look to do against the likes of Joel Embiid however, especially with Davis still working himself back into game shape. I assume we will see plenty of doubles and blitzes Embiid’s way the second he touches the ball.

What’s one matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?

To piggyback on that last point, it has to be how the Lakers will attempt to slow down Embiid. Vogel has historically opted to start games big, playing Davis alongside Dwight Howard, when the team has matched up against an elite low-post scorer. However, this does contradict his recent comments when he commented that Davis and James would be the team’s primary centers going forward.

My assumption is Howard will make his way back into the rotation despite this, especially if Davis gets into early foul trouble. But I do worry how this will impact the Lakers’ offense, in particular their spacing in the half-court with the likes of Russell Westbrook also on the floor.

Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?

Despite their record and the countless injuries the team has endured, there have fortunately been a few pleasant surprises on the roster. Perhaps the biggest is the play of Malik Monk. After a slow start to the year and being unable to land a permanent spot in the rotation, the absences of multiple players provided Monk his chance to turn heads.

Monk has proven to be a dynamic fit next to James in particular. He’s often been used as a screener in the team’s inverted pick-and-roll game, and has made the most of the open shots he’s received playing next to James and Westbrook alike.

As a key part of the group’s small-ball unit, Monk has recently been on a tear, averaging 16.6 points on 67.2 percent true shooting and also canning 47.9 percent of his three-point attempts in his last 15 contests.

Biggest disappointment of the season?

While there are unfortunately many candidates to point to in terms of disappointments, the biggest thus far, outside of Davis missing as much time as he has, is Kendrick Nunn’s bone bruise. As the team’s mid-level exception signing in the offseason, Nunn was on track to be a critical part of the team’s rotation and was even reported to be penciled in as a starter next to the big three.

When the injury was first diagnosed, it was not thought to be anything severe. However, it is now more than halfway through the season and not only has Nunn not suited up, but a potential return date is still very much in the dark.

Nunn’s absence, in combination with Kent Bazemore and Wayne Ellington falling out of the rotation, has also resulted in the team relying heavily on Avery Bradley to log more minutes than he realistically should at this stage of his career, which has led to mixed results, at best.

What’s one thing Sixers fans should watch for in this one?

After sitting at the bottom of the league in turnover frequency for a majority of the season, the Lakers have quietly cleaned up their act in the new year. Since the start of January, the team has posted the league’s second-best turnover frequency (right above Philadelphia, in fact), which has been a big part of the offense finally trending upward.

How well the team can continue to take care of the ball, while also working Davis back into the rotation, and next to Westbrook for a larger sample, could prove to be a big factor in who pulls this one out.